by: Sandi Durell
When it comes to social injustice and political upheaval, one can usually rely upon Bertolt Brecht, an admirer of the communist ethic, for long-winded insights. In this clever, but uneven, rendering of an old Chinese tale now playing at Classic Stage Company, originally translated in 1963 by James and Tania Stern, it’s a push-pull between females as to who gets to keep the child Michael. But let me not digress to the finality.
Brecht’s affinity for amusement probably got lots of tee hees during his time, and having Christopher Lloyd at the helm of this production as the first act’s Singer-Narrator and as the caricature shouting lunatic Azdek in Act Two, does elicit similar responses. Larger than life, he bellows, cajoles, rolls on the floor and is the eventual ironic embodiment of the Judge.
Brian Kulick, the Artistic Director, has risen above most of the hodge-podge by allowing his cast to find the truthfulness in their characters in this updated version. In addition, there is original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), plaintive in style as it brings the poetry of W.H. Auden to life. And, we the audience, get to participate – Oh, Oh, Oh – some on stage as part of a wedding party.
In this fable, the little Russian town of Grusinia is experiencing the fall of the Soviet Union, the statue of Lenin brought down by the people as revolution and violence erupt and we find the wife (a hearty and funny Mary Testa) of the now deceased Governor fleeing, but taking time to choose which dresses she must have with her, as she dictates her needs to the kitchen maid Grusha (a sweet Elizabeth A. Davis – Tony Nominee Once). In fact, she’s so busy picking out clothing she forgets to take her baby. But Grusinia, of kind heart, rescues the child and flees. Her own love, Simon (a much too low key Alex Hurt) goes off to war as Grusinia makes her way with the child, pursued by the Russian Ironshirts – ‘terrible is the temptation to do good.’
The sparse scenery does not leave one wanting, as suitcases are used as a bridge, Coca Cola signs replace Hammer and Sickle to the credit of Tony Straiges. The ragamuffin costumes fit the period precisely (Anita Yavich).
And when the time comes and the new regime rules (it’s like the lunatics are now in charge of the asylum), the two women meet in court, the governor’s wife and her attorney seeking custody of the child (who BTW, is a puppet) and Grusina pleading for herself, as the once drunkard Azdek becomes the corrupt new Judge pocketing money (The Judge was always a rascal. . . now the rascal shall become the Judge). Ah, the irony! Finally, the title of the show is revealed as a chalk circle is drawn, the child put in the center and the two women pull to see who wins. Well, it isn’t quite that simple, but it’s Brecht comedy-drama. Corruption, abuse, love, life, justice, resolution.
You’ll feel the pangs but will mind the long, many moments of boredom.
The cast members all play multiple roles and the other rest of the cast includes a noteable Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky and Deb Radloff.
*Photos: Joan Marcus
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, East Village- (866) 811-4111, classicstage.org. Through June 23rd. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
*the role played by Mary Testa will be played by Lea De Laria during the last 2 weeks